“I’m at the age where I don’t reach out,” Stephen Malkmus says. “I’m kind of hidden from view, like a lot of people my age. We text and we’re on the internet with our friends, but we don’t go out every night.”
The 53-year-old singer-songwriter — you might know him as a Gen-X icon from his years fronting Pavement in the 1990s, or from the steady stream of consistently great solo records he’s been putting out in the decades since then — has just explained the impetus of Traditional Techniques, his third LP in two years, due out Friday. Though he could be one of the dozens of guys I know around his age, who all engage in some form of self-imposed isolation that’s pleasurable and melancholic in equal (and sometimes unequal) doses.
Traditional Techniques might very well be the soundtrack for that kind of solitary, reflective existence. The idea came to Malkmus while in the midst of making 2018’s Sparkle Hard with his backing band, the Jicks. He suddenly felt an urge to make a much different kind of record from the one he was making. He wanted it to be quieter, more stripped down. In time, he would create his version of a ’60s-style British folk LP, in which shambling acoustic guitars and spooky pedal-steel riffs evoke lonely, haunted inward journeys. Assisting him in the process was Sparkle Hard producer Chris Funk, one of the founding members of The Decemberists.
“He’s been doing some stuff in Portland and he was like, ‘Yeah, dude, let’s make a folk record,'” Malkmus continues. “He had shit lying around, like banjos and acoustic guitars.”
When Malkmus was in Pavement, he was frequently described as a “slacker,” which must’ve been annoying considering how long he’s been steadily putting out records and touring. But the designation makes sense when you speak to him. Still as rakishly handsome and slyly witty in middle age as he was in the ’90s, Malkmus is friendly but guarded when talking about his art, casually but firmly deflecting any attempt to nudge him toward self-analysis. He’s more likely to go on a tangent about Fleabag or Nick Nolte’s filmography than indulge an in-depth breakdown of his own work.
When it comes to Traditional Techniques, a sensitive and ravishing LP that stands as the strongest collection of tunes he’s put together in years, he is characteristically nonchalant about the album’s genesis. With the Jicks, Malkmus favors muscular arrangements and guitar heroics that take on a whole new jammy life on stage. (One fan has even assembled compilations of his live work under the Grateful Dead-inspired moniker “Jicks Picks.” A simple Google search will provide more background.) But on Techniques, backed sparingly by trusted compatriots like Funk and Matt Sweeney of Chavez fame, he sounds as tender as he ever has on record, singing softly and openly about the value of romantic love and friendship.
If this is a reflection of Malkmus’ current state of mind, he will neither confirm nor deny. (Ahead of our interview, his publicist asked that I not bring up the recent death of his long-time friend and collaborator, David Berman.) But you don’t get to make this many records — including work that can stand with your best output — by staying still. At the moment, Malkmus seems content to let the winds take him where it will.
“I have in my life a lot things that have happened, positive and negative, that’s fate or just bumping into things,” he says. “Other things I force, but a lot is you just kind of bump in to people or opportunities arise.”
Why do you bill yourself as Stephen J. Malkmus on the cover?
My friend, who did the layout and the concept, he was messing with these old-school letterheads, and he just liked how the “J” looked. It makes you sound more important, I guess, when you do that. And I want to be important.
Sometimes artists formalize their names when they make a big career transition. When Billy Joel made his classical album, he billed himself as William Joel.
Well, Billy and I are a lot alike. William and I. Yeah, I can do a fun little Stevie Malkmus [album] eventually. That’ll be a change.
Can I ask what is the “J” is short for?
My middle name is Joseph, for better or worse. When it’s just a “J,” you don’t really have to know that it’s Joseph, the “J” is the whole supper. It just sounds good. Stephen J. Foster, right?
I’m also a Steven with a “J” middle initial, though I spell my first name with a “v” instead of a “ph.”
There you go. They go well together.
You seem to be in the midst of an especially prolific period. Do you feel inspired lately?
I think I’m always kind of trying to conjure something up. It’s just whether or not you want it to go all the way, to go past first base. Second base is making a demo, third base is recording it, and fourth is actually releasing it. That’s a home run. To actually come through and do all that, that takes a certain amount of will and willingness to travel and to work.
Your last few albums have been concept-oriented, whether it’s positioning Groove Denied as an electronic experiment or Traditional Techniques as a folk record. Do you approach songwriting with an idea in mind like, “I’d like to write this kind of song,” or do you end up writing songs and then fitting a concept to whatever you’ve done?
I guess it’s just messing around with sounds. It could just be a little bit or a feeling and you’re like, “Oh, that’s grunge.” Then it’s just fitting it. I figure out, “Well, that seems interesting to me in this kind of climate,” relative to what I can do and what I’m hearing or what it feels like today. Also, I might be like, “Oh, it’s time to do some cheesy ’80s keyboard sounds.” Where would that lead? It probably will lead to Quiet Storm.
There’s a real sweetness to this record, a tenderness that’s right on the surface.
Yeah, it’s got a vulnerability about it. My wife liked that. She thinks that’s sexy, or whatever. Like that priest in the… whatever that show was, with the woman …
Yeah, yeah. That’s why he’s hot, or whatever, because the way he looks at people. There’s vulnerability in his eyes, and empathy, or whatever.
I imagine you end up sounding tender, in part, because you’re playing quieter.
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I would like to be a Gordon Lightfoot-y, tough man, “Nick Nolte with some feelings” type. But I can’t. My voice doesn’t sound like that. My lyrics aren’t like that, as much as I try. I’m more of a Jackson Browne, like California therapy.
I love that Nick Nolte is an aspirational figure for you.
I like everything he’s done, in his personal life or every movie he’s in. North Dallas Forty — I’m showing my age here — but I was really into that movie. I think I was 12 when it came out. He’s just tough, sitting there in the ice bath and taking codeine, and washing it down with a beer, and then going and playing football.
Obviously you’ve had songs on your records where you’re playing acoustically, but I’m curious what your relationship to folk music is. Is that something that you’ve always been interested in, or did that happen later?
I like Bob Dylan stuff. He’s the man in so many ways, but I wouldn’t think to be influenced by him so much. Maybe just nonlinear lyrics, of course. But a lot of his chord progressions are maybe a little more Americana, and if you listen to my back catalog, it’s not so much in there. But the British music, like the people that were influenced by him, [influenced me], like Fairport Convention, and Bert Jansch, and Davey Graham. Also, the whole private-press-style of Gary Higgins’ Red Hash.
There’s also the Stones, an album like Beggars Banquet, which is… we don’t have to talk about boomer classics, but I really like that record.
My favorite track on the album is “The Greatest Own In Legal History,” which is about as straight-forward of a love song as I’ve heard you do, though it’s also about a lawyer hustling a client.
The first chords I was imagining almost as Big Star, though it doesn’t sound like that. I sound more like Dylan or something, but imagined Big Star in my mind before we played it. As far as the lyrics… Yeah, I don’t know. I guess finally I came up with the chorus for The Greatest Own in Legal History, and then it sort of wrote itself in a certain way in that it was going to be… not a prison ballad, but just… There would be a…. Where could I write from that? There’s a little poetry at the start, and then it’s just trippiness, and then it gets into the story.
Do you feel like it’s easier for you to be more vulnerable in a song at this age then it was in your 20s or 30s?
Well, I don’t know. I mean, the first records you’re totally vulnerable, because you’re just putting yourself out there in whatever way, shape, or form. It’s naturally vulnerable, and then you can play off that. Once you have an audience or you feel a bit validated, you can be a little more cynical or something. At the start, there’s like no way. I mean, if I hear the early songs of Pavement, I’m like a little boy making songs. It’s feels nerve-wracking that anyone’s listening to you.
Speaking of Pavement, what do you think the possibility is that you’ll play more shows than just those two festival gigs you currently have booked in Europe?
I don’t really have a comment on that yet.
What are your feelings about playing with Pavement again? Do you ever wonder how and why that band has endured?
A lot of labor got us there, beyond everyone liking it. It’s a mix of being totally grateful in a cosmic way, but also remembering all the shit. It was good, but a lot of shows, and all the albums … it’s a lot of work.
I thought the 2010 reunion show I saw was great.
Yeah, I thought it was pretty great. Of course, we want to even do better. I think some people in the band are even more ready to do it right. I don’t know. We’ll see.